Like most readers of this blog, I’m a parent of teenagers (well, my older son turns 22 this week, so there’s just one teenager left) and as we all have come to realize in recent years, our kids and most of their friends are becoming increasingly disconnected with the natural world.
If you’re like me, your youth had a lot of outdoor time, especially when the weather was conducive to being outdoors. I walked to school twice a day (morning session, home for lunch, then back for afternoon class) until seventh grade, and even then I did a lot of walking to and from school in good weather and bad. Summers were spent outdoors and – this is not a cliché – we played with our friends, wandering what seemed like far and wide, only coming home for lunch and supper.
Today, a young person is more likely to be found indoors, regardless of weather, using some kind of screen or electronic device – cellphone, computer or tablet – to communicate with friends or play virtual games instead of heading out the door for the real thing. When they do play, it’s likely to be pre-arranged play dates, community recreation sports or activities, or programmed camps.
Whatever happened to unstructured time – time for kids just to be bored?
Our society seems to have gotten away from the concept of letting our children play freely. This may be due to any number of factors: both parents working, making it necessary to arrange something structured for the kids, a desire for a feeling of safety by having kids either stay home or take part in approved supervised activities, or a perceived need for advanced educational and cultural opportunities in order to help our kids “get ahead.” Many parents feel that intellectual development is uppermost in a competitive world and thus find the need to enroll their children in classes, camps and activities that purport to stimulate the intellect and pave the way to get into a good college or career down the road.
We’re becoming more aware of evidence that these kinds of programmed activities run counter to developing and nurturing creativity in our young people. Psychology professor Dr. Jennifer Wiley concluded that one does the best creative work when their attention is unfocused – when they step away from a problem, for instance, or during transition times between activities. This may have happened to you, but you just didn’t notice it. “When you are trying hard to focus your attention, you’re going to miss out on new ideas,” says Dr. Wiley, quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal article.
Where does Scouting figure into the creativity spectrum? After all, our program is fairly well-defined, what with requirements for rank, merit badges, leadership structure and weekly meetings. However, it’s in those weekly meetings that the boys have the freedom to plan and prepare for outdoor adventure, and the monthly campouts give them that opportunity – a chance for patrols to get creative, encounter and solve problems, and form bonds of cooperation and friendship that they just can’t get by watching television or using a computer.
The outdoor program is a hallmark of our movement, and we’re one of the only youth groups that has a component where being in the outdoors is a central part of the program. Indeed, sports teams may spend much of their time outdoors, but not because they’re exploring or learning about nature and the world around – it’s because many field games, like baseball or football, require so much room that it’s impractical to play them inside. Scouting encourages boys to learn about animals, plants, weather and geology, to hike, bike, canoe and camp in the outdoors. Getting out under canvas surrounded by nature removes the distractions of our daily lives, lets us clear our minds and just deal with the tasks at hand, in the moment, at camp.
Outdoor time is so limited for everyone these days – adults and children alike – that there are movements afoot to get people out of their houses, cars, schools and offices. The national No Child Left Inside movement reports that legislation before Congress would require schools to implement environmental literacy programs as a condition of receiving grant money, and Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki, through his foundation, is hoping to encourage us to explore the outdoors through his 30×30 Nature Challenge that aims to get everyone outdoors for thirty minutes each day for thirty days. Suzuki reveals the distressing statistic that kids spend an average of six hours a day indoors in front of a screen but only six minutes a day outside (most likely waiting for the school bus to drive them to and from school). The first 30×30 challenge in Canada took place in May, and researchers reported that participants “reported significant increases in their sense of well-being, feeling more vitality and energy, while feelings of stress, negativity, and sleep disturbances were all reduced” – all from just taking a walk, riding a bike or eating lunch outside for 30 minutes a day.
Through Scouting, we can accomplish multiple goals toward reconnecting our youth to nature and themselves. We can pry our boys away from their electronic devices and get them outdoors, and we can put them in situations where they have time and freedom to be creative. Doing so will give them real advantages as the habits instilled will serve them well later in life.
Image courtesy of samuiblue / FreeDigitalPhotos.net